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Pundit’s Mailbag —
Another Victim Of Spinach Crisis

We are a small regional Savoy spinach packer in Norfolk, Virginia. We sell to retail under the Krisp-Pak Brand and under various private labels. We also sell to wholesalers. We were hit hard by California growers and packers not standing up and accepting their responsibility the first day they heard E.coli 0157:H7 was on a bag of Spinach. Instead they just waited for the FDA on a Thursday afternoon to advise consumers to not eat ANY spinach.

My sales are 50% of what they were prior to September 14th, because the people who had the problem, “Brand X” would not take their spinach off the market and do a press release.

The point I would like to make:

FDA learns what to do about labeling, washing and distribution from the manufacturers, they take our lead. The FDA’s creditability is only as good as its source.

The FDA’s job would be much easer if manufacturers would do their job with integrity to protect the consumers at any cost.

The label on the bag “wash before using” is a non-issue.

FDA telling consumers not to wash a ready-to-eat product is a non-issue.

I suppose the only answer is to tell the consumer not to eat anything — then the FDA is protected, and the spinach packer is protected.

The answer is the packer must take responsibly to recall the first time they hear anything.

— Paul V.Battaglia
Krisp-Pak Co., Inc

Many thanks to Paul for his letter. We need to point out a couple of things: First, that this company has no connection to the Krisp-Pak that is located on the Hunts Point market in New York. Second, that we edited Paul’s letter because he made an accusation about a specific company that we know to be incorrect. So we replaced the use of a specific brand name with Brand X.

Yet Paul is a correct that it is reasonable to say the spinach crisis ensued — if you define the crisis as the FDA’s decision to advise against consumption of spinach — because the FDA was miffed that certain processors refused to issue a voluntary recall.

We covered this issue way back before this past Thanksgiving when we ran Spinach Farmers Won’t Be Thanking Certain Processors This Holiday. In that piece this is what we said:

Probably the best single guide to the FDA’s thinking about the spinach crisis is the testimony of Robert E. Brackett, Director, Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, Food and Drug Administration, before the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, United States Senate.

It contains a fascinating revelation:

“…FDA’s San Francisco District Office and California Department of Health Services’ Food and Drug Branch hosted a conference call with three spinach-processing firms to advise them of the outbreak and to suggest that they consider the possible need to recall spinach products.”

Note that the conference call was with THREE spinach-processing firms. We know that Natural Selection Foods was on the conference call and immediately began the voluntary recall of its products.

This paragraph indicates that there were two other processors on the line. We know that they did not announce a recall. It is quite possible that it was the decision of these two firms not to voluntarily recall that led the FDA to issue its blanket advisory.

In other words, the flowery language we have heard about everyone stepping up to the plate was not true. The FDA asked three processors to do a voluntary recall. Two processors declined to act — and, in that decision lay the proximate cause of the advisory to consumers not to eat spinach.

Read the entire testimony here.

Now we know that Natural Selection Foods was on the call and that they did institute a recall. We know that Dole supported Natural Selection Foods in this effort and that Dole product was, in fact, quickly recalled. Although Dole was on the call, it was as part of the Natural Selection Foods team and not one of three processors — since it did not process spinach.

It is reasonable to say had the other two processors simply said “Ok, we are going to recall,” the FDA might have been satisfied and no advisory would have ever been issued.

So, in a sense, the industry can condemn these two “holdouts” for not falling on their swords, doing what the FDA wanted and thus precipitating a crisis. Yet, we now know that the FDA was wrong to ask these two other companies to recall, as they were blameless.

So it seems the real anger should be directed toward a CDC and FDA procedure that is so weak that it can ask totally innocent companies to spend millions and millions of dollars.

Basically, if you are a prominent name with a large market share or have a recognizable character associated with a specific product on your bag, consumers are more likely to mention your brand in connection with a CDC study of victims. This is because of hazy memories and general association with a product. Yet it is CDC’s responsibility to test this “familiarity effect” so that it can adjust survey results to account for it.

We do, of course, regret that Krisp-Pak’s business is down so much. But if food safety is to blame, it may be that Krisp-Pak got hurt especially badly because it happened to have a couple of problems of its own at a time when everyone was focused on food safety.

On both November 1, 2006 and, again, on November 28 2006, the FDA posted recall notices from Krisp-Pak related to fear of Listeria monocytogenes on Krisp-Pak’s fresh-cut fruit line.

Although many are struggling with food safety and fresh-cut fruit, the timing of these recalls was an especially bad break for Krisp-Pak.

One thing that is certainly true, however, is that processors, and others, need to do their jobs with integrity.

One terrible effect of the FDA’s action in the spinach crisis in that if people believe that everyone will be treated the same in a food safety crisis, it blurs the incentive to invest to become a food safety leader. That may wind up being a tragic result of the spinach crisis.

Best wishes to Paul for the speedy recovery of his business and many thanks for sharing his point of view.

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